By Hannah Jo Uy
Images by Pinggot Zulueta
Can art change the world? Not alone, Renato Habulan answered, “But it can change the psyche of the people to effect change.”
As one of the fathers of social realism, Habulan’s hand in shaping the local art scene as we know it extends beyond the visual pieces he has imparted to the public over the years, which continue to enthrall and capture viewers for its ability to speak volumes about the human condition. Indeed, his influence has evolved into a pulsating energy reverberating through new and emerging artists who cite him as a remarkable influence in their personal aesthetic explorationssaying that beyond the inherent visual appeal of his work it is Habulan’s ability to capture truth that serve as their inspiration.
His decades in the art scene has showcased his unparalleled ability to match his technical skill with moving and relatable visual concepts. Speaking on how he has evolved as an artist over the years, Habulan described it the feeling as having gone “full circle.”
“In 1970,” Habulan recalled, “my medium was pen and ink on acrylic wash canvas, with a visual essay titled Sa Lupi ng Katahimikan ni Sisa. Now I am doing again this very meticulous medium with a series on Tira.”
The work he is referring to is the latest exhibited as part of Art Fair Philippines 2018 where he is a featured artist alongside Antipas Delotavo and Pablo Baen Santos also prominent members of the social realist collective, Kaisahan.
Habulan’s Tira’ or Ti’ra serves as a double entendre. “‘Tira’ or remains,” Habulan said, “because it is a reflection on people whose lives have been impacted and worn out by greed, apathy, power. Pronounced slowly, (Ti-ra), it also means hitting. It is a swipe at this greed, apathy, and reckless exercise of power that slowly drain the life out of people.”
To further drive this point, Tira’ prominently features discarded wood and other rejected materials from the carver. “The driftwood are finds from the forest wasteland,” and Habulan said, clean, bleached, and curved some skeletal remains and remnants of war. “I’m an advocate of narrative art,” he said. “I use all possible medium and form to deepen my stories.”
The determination to deepen the visual narrative presented by each piece became the driving force for Habulan to explore a wide range of mediums and approaches such as painting, sculpture, installation, and video, in order to provide a stronger story to the public through the merits of each approach within reason. “Although I use installation,” Habulan said, “I do not want reduce my art into objectification or materiality. I want my art to exude an emotion, feelings along with its stories.”
While the human spirit has been a topic Habulan has shared as having been of interest there is a core and underlying theme that underpins his poignant visual narratives: “The dialogue of faith still central to me,” he said. “Like I always explained in my installation and painting of Tira’. They can destroy our dignity, our culture, our civilization. And what will remains is our faith.”
Being a respected veteran in the art scene, Habulan shared his thoughts on the evolution of the Philippine art scene in the context of the rest of Asia, gleaning from the proliferation of galleries, collectives, and shows blossoming all over the country: “In our neighbouring countries, collectiveness, and collaboration is so dynamic,” he said. “We are evolving differently in Asia.”
Habulan cites as an example, Indonesia, where they built a community of artists led by senior artists based on rural settings. “There are mentors, apprentices, struggling artists helping each other,” he said. “In Thailand and Korea, they have so many big art activities supported by the government. In our case, the trajectory is going toward individualism or autonomism of an individual artist because of his effort, the robustness of the market, and the absence of government support and initiative.” The impact of this, he warns, is that there will be struggling artists, both young and old, who will be left behind in what collectiveness can contribute to society.
Nevertheless, Habulan said that he has observed what he called the “tremendous progress of Philippine Art.” It is in this aspect, however, he shared his concerns. “As the financial side grows,” he said, “including the downstream business, the more it impacts the creative side.” Being part of older generation of artists, this, he said, worries him as he sees a number of young creatives missing the true essence of being an artist to such an extent they may be indistinguishable from a corporate salesman.
“We have a role,” Habulan stressed. “We are the chronicler of time. We are the visionary of the things to come. We are the critique of our society. We should help the people to discernand understand the bigger picture. How can you do that if you are occupied by competition of the trade?”
As always, Habulan is unafraid to ask the important question. This is not owing to pessimism, but rather it comes from a unique brand of practical optimism that pushes society to realize its full potential through brutal self-reflection, emphasizing that honesty paves the way for progress.